Scumbria Goes Oriental

Scomber Scombus, or Scumbria (accent on the first syllable), as we call it in Odessa, is “the true mackerel” (Integrated Taxonomic Information System, 2012), and this is not an Odessa story. Odessa stories come in four categories:

  1. Mostly true
  2. Creatively true
  3. Legend with some names thrown in
  4. Wild fantasy
Operniy-5.jpg

Take category 1, for instance. The famous Odessa Opera house (not the one you see here; this one was built on the same spot later) opened in 1810, and for the first couple of decades of its existence drew very little audience. Then governor-general Count Michail Vorontsov came up with an original solution. He appointed the owner of the theater to a position of medical inspector whose job was to inspect all new arrivals in the Odessa port. Odessa had suffered from black plague, supposedly brought from Turkey, so the fear of another epidemics was ripe. It so happened that the new inspector invariably discovered infection among the newly arrived passengers who were promptly quarantined – at their own cost. Quarantine fees would subsequently be used to hire world-renown artists to perform at the theatre (King, 2004). Unbelievable, but mostly true!

Category 2 involves the famed Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, considered the best Giselle in the world. We in Odessa have always had everything the first, the best, and sometimes the only! The other part Alicia Alonso is famous for is Carmen in Rodion Schedrin’s ballet version of Bizet’s opera. Of course we all knew that Alicia Alonso came to The Soviet Union to teach Maya Plisetskaya, the foremost Russian star (and Schedrin’s wife) to dance the Sevillian seductress. And doubtless, having come to Russia, the Cuban diva travelled to Odessa to perform in out unique Opera House. The story is hanging on the last name – Alonso. Alberto Alonso, brother-in-law to Alicia, was a co-founder, artistic director, and choreographer of Ballet Alicia Alonso, which later became Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

Carmen-suite, as the ballet is called, was written and produced for Maya Plisetskaya by her request, and Alberto Alonso, who had first created the innovative, shocking, but brilliant choreography in Cuba, trying the moves with Alicia, came to Bolshoi to produce the ballet there. Alicia was not present. Did maestro Alonso ever come to Odessa? I don’t know; I was attending college out of town at the time. I heard the story later and found no records of it anywhere, but the scandalous Carmen-suite was duly produced and performed in Odessa Opera house, as soon as it got out of disfavor with Soviet authorities.

Fyodor Shalyapin, the great bass, did perform in Odessa quite a few times before the revolution prompted him to emigrate to Paris. The story goes that Stalin, who spared no effort trying to entice famous emigrants to return, allowed the Bolshoi to tour France. The bass who was among the troupe (the name remained unknown), went to see Shalyapin. Having paid his respects to the star, young singer started describing the wonderful life in communist Russia and all the privileges enjoyed by artists there. “You see, I sing Mephistopheles on Bolshoi scene!,” – he proudly declared. “You do? – sardonically inquired the great Shalyapin, – Well, they got what they deserved.” In my mind, this anecdote, told and retold in numerous variations, belongs to category 3.

Wien - Staatsoper (1).JPG

Finally, here is an example of category 4, Wild Fantasy. Any Odessite will tell you that our Opera house is one of the two most beautiful in Europe, the other one being Vienna Opera house, which is the exact copy of ours, built later by the same architects, but on a smaller scale. Imagine my shock when I found myself in Vienna, in front of the Wiener Staatsoper which doesn’t look anything like the one in Odessa. Look at the two photos: it’s not even the same architectural style. Lavishly decorated in Rococo style, with impeccable acoustics, Odessa Opera house was built almost 20 years later than the one in Vienna, built by a different architect in Greek revival style. The basis for fantasy? Ours was designed by two Viennese architects.

Now a pop quiz for you, Beautiful People: in which category would you put the following story?

One of the Odessa Tales by Isaac Babel is called Di Grasso. It vividly describes a performance by a great Italian tragic in what could be construed as Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni. In the colorful Babel style, the story is bursting with Odessa passion for opera; the ticket scalpers charge five times the price and tickets are impossible to obtain even at that exorbitant cost. Mishka Yaponchik (Michael the Japanese), the king of Odessa gangsters, has issued an order to stop all criminal activities in and around the theater during the shows. The Italian guest artist, left unnamed by Babel, was none other than the Great Caruso!

Yet Caruso has never visited Odessa. Titta Ruffo, another great Italian opera singer, did, but he was a baritone, while the lead part in Mascagni’s opera is a tenor. So who was immortalized in Babel’s story? Described in such realistic details, it could not have been pure fantasy, and it isn’t: Beniamino Gigli, sometimes called “the second Caruso,” delighted and astounded the Odessa opera connoisseurs before going on to the world fame.

See the source image

When I visited Odessa for its 200’s anniversary celebration in 1995, my great-aunt (may she rest in piece) decided to treat me for Shabbos with her special Gefilte Fish, stuffed scumbria. We went fishing to the famous Odessa Privoz market. Plenty of fish, but no scumbria in sight, which was strange, since of the 130 kinds of fish in the Black Sea, scumbria has always been considered an Odessa delicacy. I asked a friendly fishmonger. “Ha!- was the answer, – Where is scumbria? And where is Mishka Yaponchik, I ask you? Where is the Great Caruso? Ah, Madame and Madamochka (little Madame – that was me), as soon as they found gas in our sea – they should have full bellies of that gas! – our scumbria waved her tail good-bye and went to Turkey. No more scumbria in Odessa!” I filed this tidbit under category 3, but sadly, the garrulous lady was right. Development of the Odeske gas field has affected marine environment and impacted marine life.

Fortunately sometimes we are able to buy fresh Atlantic mackerel here in Florida. It’s not Odessa scumbria, but a very close relative. Inspired by a great Russian chef and Youtube star Vasilij Emelyanenko, I make it Oriental style.

I prefer to mix marinade ingredients by hand, until I squeeze plenty of juice out of vegetables:

Two hours later, you have an original, totally delicious treat to savor and to impress company.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 mackerel
  • 1 medium size onion, sliced in semi-circles
  • Bunch of dill with stems
  • 1 medium size tomato, cut into bite size pieces
  • 2 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar

PROCEDURE

  • Cut fish, set aside
  • Slash tail on both sides
  • Prepare marinade, squeeze by hand
  • Add marinade to fish, mix well
  • Let stand for 2 hours, mix every 15 minutes

Enjoy!

39 Comments Add yours

  1. Fascinating stories with intriguing classifications.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much, Derrick.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Angela Gaft says:

    Beautiful and fun post! Thanks for recipe too !

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you so much, dear Angela; I am so glad you like it.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. A delightful tour of opera and ballet…not to mention mackerel! Your tastes are indeed varied, Dolly. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are right, dear Anna; my tastes are quite eclectic, but being from Odessa, I am just as passionate about opera as any Odessite. In fact, I used to travel to Milano for the opening of season at La Scala every year. My involvement with our school and then my father’s illness put an end to it. Perhaps when the Covid madness is over, we will resume our travelling.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A_Boleyn says:

    Sadly, I’m not a fan of mackerel but I enjoyed the various tales/stories you shared as an intro. It sounds like the disappearance of the mackerel from Odessa may be a Category 1 tale. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I also think it’s Category 1, and have recently found out that Turkey has discovered a much larger and richer gas field than the Odeske one, and they are developing it now. Where should poor scumbria go?!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Another very entertaining post. Thank you so much, Dolly! Dont regret about the missing similarity between the Odessa and the Vienna Opera House. 😉 Russians definitely have a greater and powerful tradition in music, and ballet. Thank you for rememberin on the fish recipe. Lets hope i will be able to reproduce the delicious marinade. First i have to find an offer for mackerels here. As i’d told you, here normally are only carps. 😉 Have a beautiful beginning of the new week. Be well, and stay save! Michael

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much, dear Michael! I don’t regret lack of similarity, but I still maintain that the acoustics are better in Odessa (only kidding, of course)!
      I have discovered that the marinade works just as well with frozen and defrosted mackerel, in case you can’t find it fresh.
      Have a wonderful weekend, dear friend!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you for remembering, Dolly! All two are reat buildings, getting their sense from the artists, working there. Good tip, with the frozen mackerel. I am sure frozen is much more available here. Since two weeks our local shop is closed, and maybe reopens again midst November. So we have a distance of 9 kilometers to the next available food store. Sadly with the same small offerings. But more and more i am close to delivering services. 🙂 Enjoy your week, and stay save! Michael

        Liked by 4 people

      2. You too, be well and stay safe, dear friend.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Thank you, Dolly! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      4. You are very welcome, Michael.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. me says:

    Mackerel is wonderful and under-utilized. I’ll keep those 4 types of stories in mind: useful categorizations, especially in the current politics! So the fish is marinated but uncooked?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. LOL I totally agree about current politics.
      Yes, it is marinated, but uncooked, just like herring. In fact, in Odessa we use to salt it like herring, but Atlantic mackerel doesn’t come out the same, unfortunately. That’s why I have switched to marinated.
      Thank you for stopping by, dear friend!

      Like

      1. me says:

        Your stories and your recipes are so delicious. Thank you for spreading the joys of a rich life.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You are very kind! Thank you so much for a lovely comment.

        Like

  7. Every town worth visiting has the stories of all sorts, including those that are not true but should be. Odessa sounds most worthy of a visit, should i ever have the opportunity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In my – totally objective! – opinion, Odessa is definitely worth a visit, dear Mimi. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

      Like

  8. CarolCooks2 says:

    Giselle my all-time favourite ballet …Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev…and mackerel such a lovely fish especially when prepared like that…Thank you, Dolly, for reviving a memory 🙂 x

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am pleased to have given you something enjoyable, dear Carol!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. CarolCooks2 says:

        You did indeed dear Dolly 🙂 x

        Liked by 2 people

  9. ShiraDest says:

    I was hungry, and popped over to look for a snack!

    Like

    1. This is a little too involved for a snack when you are hungry, but it is delicious! We have enjoyed it on Shabbat.
      Thank you for stopping by – air hugs,
      D

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ShiraDest says:

        Boker Tov, Dolly! Glad you all enjoyed it over Shabbat!
        Safe Air Hugs!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. By me
        it’s already evening – busy day. But productive.
        Much love,
        D

        Liked by 1 person

      3. ShiraDest says:

        Oh, wow, I have no idea where you are! 🙂
        Glad your day has been productive,
        Much love and many hugs,
        Shira

        Liked by 1 person

      4. To quote our resident famous comedian Dave Barry, we live as close to the United States as possible, without actually being there. That’s Florida, South Beach to be exact, where it feels more like Cuba than the US. It’s a fun place to be!

        Like

    1. Thank you very much for reblogging, dear friend!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. HAD TO CATCH IT QUICK! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Sure, before it swims away!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Joëlle says:

    Good morning Dolly! I had heard of, but never seen the Carmen Suites ballet. Yes, very innovative indeed.
    My husband and I don’t enjoy mackerel very much unless it has marinated in strong flavors. I use ginger, shallots, lime, lemon, rice vinegar… and hot pepper too! Then I cook it and turn it into a spread.
    https://macuisinesanssulfites.com/2015/02/09/rillettes-de-maquereau-maison/
    Now your recipe sounds delicious. I am bookmarking it. I still get a kick out of the serving plates — the exact same as my set, we must have bought it at the same store 😄!
    Thank you for everything, Dolly, have a good day, stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the link, dear Joelle; your recipe looks delicious. I was able to figure it out without my granddaughter’s help, and I am proud of myself! I will definitely try it.
      Wasn’t Maya Plisetskaya the absolute best? Years before Carmen and Anna Karenina (another, and even more innovative ballet her husband wrote for her and her uncle produced), she was considered the best Dying Swan ever https://youtu.be/qIKoc4X0Cko
      At 62!
      Have a wonderful day, dear friend – be well, stay safe.

      Like

  11. Joëlle says:

    P-S: no cooking? The only “fresh” mackerel I can get a hold of here being the frozen kind, I fear that Simply marinating it might not work well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But it does. When we can get it fresh, we buy a few. I usually prepare one and freeze the rest. I defrost it in the fridge overnight, and it’s fine.

      Liked by 1 person

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